By Claire Kowalchik
Protein provides the building blocks of muscle—lean, calorie-burning muscle that enables you to do everything you do, from going up and down stairs, to cruising the Curves Circuit, to participating in your local 5K for heart disease. And protein comes in all shapes, tastes, and textures: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, dairy, and even grains. Here’s how to sort through the options for the ones that build lean muscle and good health.
Not All Proteins Are Created Equal
The amino acids that make up protein are what your body uses to build muscle and other tissue. Scientists have identified 20 amino acids that you need, and of those, your body can synthesize all but nine. These nine are called essential amino acids, and you must get them from food. A protein that contains all of the essential amino acids is called a complete protein.
Animal foods—meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products all deliver complete proteins, providing all the essential amino acids. That may be great when it comes building muscle, but all animal products also come with saturated fat, which is not so great for heart health. Saturated fat from food raises blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
Plant proteins such as beans, edamame (soy beans), and certain grains generally are not sources of complete protein, but, they are very low in in saturated fat, and stay that way if you prepare them in a heart healthy manner.
“While complete proteins might seem ideal, because they provide all essential amino acids, they are higher in saturated fat than incomplete proteins,” says Courtney Lambrow, nutritionist for Curves. “For this reason, it is important to consume a combination of both and to focus on the leanest choices.”
The Best Heart-Healthy Options
Whether you’re a meat or veggie lover, there are plenty of good proteins to choose from. Among the animal proteins, the American Heart Association recommends these low-saturated-fat options:
• Fish and shellfish
• Poultry minus the skin (choose breast meat over higher-fat legs and wings)
• Lean beef (round, sirloin, chuck, or loin; choose “choice” or “select” grades over “prime”)
• Lean ground beef with no more than 10% calories from fat
• Lean pork (tenderloin or loin chop)
• Lean cuts of bison
• Wild game such as venison, rabbit, pheasant, or wild duck, which are lower in fat than animals raised for market (duck or goose)
Eggs provide high-quality protein—one that is complete and is easily digested and used by your body. One large hard-boiled egg contains 78 calories, 6 grams of protein, and only 1.6 grams of saturated fat. Though eggs are high in cholesterol, studies show that eating them does not raise blood cholesterol levels in most people.
Do you remember when cottage cheese seemed to be one of the staples of dieters everywhere? Well, there’s good reason. A half-cup serving of low-fat, 1 percent cottage cheese has only 81 calories, 1 gram of saturated fat, and a whopping 14 grams of muscle-building (and hunger-satisfying) protein.
Greek yogurt is another great choice. One 6-ounce container of plain, nonfat yogurt contains 100 calories, 17 grams of protein, and no saturated fat.
Consider mixing some cooked grains and maybe a touch of honey into that Greek yogurt. Balancing animal with plant foods rich in protein not only reduces saturated fat in your diet, it helps you add in a wide range of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that are abundant in these foods. Beans, soy, and tofu come to mind when we think about vegetarian sources of foods but most grains, especially whole grains, are also a good source of protein.
Quinoa and amaranth, two “ancient grains” that have gained popularity in recent years contain complete protein. A ¾ to 1-cup serving of cooked amaranth or quinoa delivers roughly 6 grams of protein and 166 calories.
From the traditional, old-fashioned king of protein—steak—to fish to beans to grains, there are plenty of lean proteins to help you build lean muscle and a healthy heart.